January 24, 2010


Yesterday we had our first workshop of the year and I thought it went pretty well. But about halfway through, everybody felt the weight of their training. It wasn’t the training itself, per se, everybody could do the physical moving and throwing, locking and striking stuff; that wasn’t the hard part, or the part that exhausted everyone. Rather, it was reconciling the perspective that made our brains hurt.

Recently, I’ve been harping on the principles in order to apply techniques. This sounds good, but what does it mean? There are technical or mechanical aspects to unarmed and armed combat. We should be familiar with these in order to ‘operate’ Taijutsu. But it’s the principles that make Taijutsu work as, well, Taijutsu.

Learning how to gunfight, has (at least) three elements to it. The first is why we’re picking up the gun in the first place – the ethical, willful, or spiritual considerations. We need to know why, and it had better be a good reason, because we may have to one day live with its consequences, morally and legally. Next would be the technical elements of the gun’s (the machine’s) usage – the loading and unloading of it, its firing and safety, its disassembly and re-assembly, its cleaning, its ballistics, etc. All of these and more constitute the gun’s practical elements, because if we don’t understand them we simply cannot operate the weapon. But none of these techniques require the kind of dedication, time, and energy as the actual reconciliation between man and machine in order to gunfight effectively under given circumstances.

Putting a bullet on a target that may be trying to do the same to you is nearly impossible if relying on technique alone. The awareness and familiarity that must be created between the body, the gun, and the mind that operates both takes years of experience to build. Taijutsu is no different. Too often, folks get caught up in the accumulation of technical matters instead of concentrating on their application.

Do we have to know technique? Yes, there are practical physical links we must be made aware of to appreciate their usefulness. But knowing them and doing them, doesn’t make them effective - principles do. We have to train ‘under the circumstances’ against an honest opponent, in order to see how techniques can work – how changes in our position, leverage, or timing impact what we’re doing. When we learn how to drive, we get in a car and pull onto the road, not sit at home playing Pole Position.

As we progress and mature, internalization of principles directly affects the degree to which technique is utilized. Without understanding of principles, techniques must be used in their most brutal fashion, with all the power, speed, and strength we can muster, or else risk their failure – and often they fail anyway. A broad comprehension of principles however, give us the surest way to apply technique to the degree necessary as well as allow the kind of detachment needed to flow and improvise, inherent in movement not relying upon memorized muscle memory.

January 7, 2010

Under the Blade 2010

We pulled up at Adrian's, Burlington, Wisconsin's famous ice creamery (sorry frozen custard - there is a difference) with a 30 year history of doling it out. It was a coldish day, but hell, we were in the mood and their little twists of custard are uber-tasty.

Tomo ordered black raspberry ice cream. A small cone for myself, I said absently to the counter grandma manning the place. But my treat wasn't the plain vanilla I was waiting for, it was vanilla and chocolate 'twisted' together. "Oh I'm sorry, I just wanted vanilla."


Grandma's eyes narrowed. They were dark, hard, cold. The left one twitched. She'd seen me before, legions of me over the years, during sweaty days and sweater nights. Snot-nosed, bratty, crying, tip toes to reach the counter - we were all the same, no matter the age. She wasn't keeping it, but she knew the score, and I was losing. The business end of this 1000 yards was speaking loud and clear: look, punk, I been dishing ‘tard since you were shitting yourself in fuzzy-feety pjs ...

She finally spoke, a Dirty Harry voice, "That's wha'cha get." She let it lie. "That's wha'cha ordered." Her crooked posture didn't move. Her wrinkled mask didn't blink.

I swallowed, my mouth dry. I mustered a whisper, "Oh ... this is fine."

I sat still and ate my twist.

Shinnen Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu!

Happy New Year Buyu! Year of the Tiger! I trust we're all recovering nicely.

My frozen custard lesson encapsulated my year of training. 2009 was a travel and train year - Japan twice, New Jersey to see Jack Hoban twice, the Midwest Taikai, Gasshuku (our 10th annual), then London, England. We also trained like crazy, brought on some new students and Buyu, and learned a whole hell of a lot. Hope you did too. But only by year's end did I realize where I was being directed to go - Grandma just summed it up.

This past year, Soke wanted us to look at Sainokonki, our capacity, more or less, to understand Taijutsu; tough stuff, especially with so many things to take in. But perhaps that’s the point, just keeping up may be the first step to broadening our ability. Our own little dojo theme of Asobigokoro, creative or playful spirit, also got plenty of mat time. Using our position to shape the kukan made more options for ourselves, leading us to Tsunagaru, the connection, which will play a big role this year as well. How we communicate with our opponent says much about our capacity to further our own understanding, bringing us back to Sainokonki.

But this year, Soke has chosen Rokkon Shojo 禄魂笑浄, the 'purfication of the senses through laughter.' When Tomoko took a look at the kanji she grimaced, "Doesn't make sense." I had to laugh; it's Ninja writing, poetic and riddlesome. Shidoshi Duncan Stewart says on his blog Rokkon Shojo has "more to do with living and being able to smile, which, incidentally, is an inevitable consequence of forgetting about Budo." The concept of Rokkon Shojo is derived from a Buddhist Shugendo principle concerning purification, but Soke says this is not how he intends its meaning. I'm eager to see how he defines it throughout the year. You can read Duncan's write-up here: http://tazziedevil.wordpress.com/rokkon-shou-jou/

Soke would also like us to look at tachi, a very old type of Japanese sword. Original tachi were not a two-handed weapon - the short, weirdly curved handle on early versions was designed to be used one handed, usually from horseback. Only later, as design and technology changed, did tachi handles straighten out and technique followed. Blade design was also different - longer lengths and harder, but more brittle steel, precluded stabbing and blocking techniques, unless the blade was supported. This led to long-range slashing movements and wide kamae, since the sword was normally used in armor on a battlefield. The Uchitachi, a shorter companion blade, longer than a wakizashi would actually lead to the development of the katana. But what does Soke have in store for us? The good news is we'll find out.

In addition to Soke's theme, we'll have our own theme. Themes are interesting. They demonstrate where we're at in our training and what we believe to be important. If we look back at the themes Soke has chosen over the years, we'll find they often have dual meanings, sometimes more, but at least two. Let's call them the outer and inner, Omote and Ura, or physical and non-physical. This is important because choosing a purely physical theme makes it hard to apply the non-physical, and vice versa. It's good to have a sense of duality. In my own training, I have been looking more and more at how our perspective inside the kukan, points to many of the answers we seek about the outcome of confrontations. In other words, how our Ura can influence our Omote.

This past November 21st, Gerardo Sanchez, an exterminator living in New York, stepped aboard a D train and started acting crazy. He confronted a drifter over a seat, when plenty were available, pulled a knife and stabbed him to death in front of 20-30 terrified passengers. According to police, Sanchez repeatedly stabbed the man in his neck and face, slashing his carotid artery. The victim died at the scene, still in his seat, eyes open. But what happened next is the extraordinary part.

After passengers pulled the emergency brake and reported the crime, the train car was locked down - sealed - from the outside. A group of passengers, innocents all, were now confined with a bloodied killer, knife in hand.

Where would we have placed ourselves in that moment on the train car? Stuffed into the huddled mass of people seeking shelter from a killer? Or, having stepped forward, at the front of the crowd, positioning ourselves between the killer and others? It's a tough question, one we may never really know until it happens, but useful as a thought tool. Luckily, Sanchez pried open one of the train car doors just enough to drop the knife onto the tracks. No one else was hurt.

This stepping forward, collapsing of the space, the void, whatever you wish to call it, is the ‘moment’ of truth, so to speak. It is the moment we extend ourselves, communicate, to our opponent an opening, a vulnerability – one they can scarcely ignore. And why? Because it fulfils their intent, empowers them with the thrill of advantage, seduces with easy victory. In short, it places us at greater risk to do the right thing.

This past year, we paid attention to the connection and the perspective that can create it. I used Asobigokoro to describe our improvisational physical creativity and also asked us to maintain a light character, one free from forcing a favorable outcome and more conducive to the artistry needed to paint the ‘moment’ with Taijutsu. The ‘moment’ is when Taijutsu occurs. The ‘moment beforehand’ is no good and the ‘moment afterward’ isn’t either, for each of those succumb to the very problems inherent in training: the reliance on power over position and the ego inventing a future memory of victory, drowning out the good sense to stalemate.

The moment is not a spot, a place, or position, it is not any single time, constituting any single occurrence. Rather, it is an intersection of emotions, intentions, and actions, falling somewhere in the range of ‘then’ and ‘now.’ As I see it, training is not about trying to anticipate the moment the opponent will strike, but to endure the moment we have allowed them to strike.
Convincing them there is but a single choice for their will to proceed, makes us safer … as it does for them. But in creating, shaping, and imagining the moment with Asobigokoro, we must now have the courage to accept the burden of it, to step forward on the train car and collapse the space. The will to accept this fate, the spirit of perseverance, the hidden intention of our ethic, to carry on, sally forth, patiently enduring the consequences ‘under the blade’ is called Shinobigokoro. It will be our 2010 theme.

Taijutsu is the hardest martial art I have ever trained. To strive for greater ability takes more than just hard physical training. The art forces us to come to certain realizations and answer some of our most basic questions. Why do we begin training? What is worth training for? When should we use our training? The answers to these questions may be different for each of us, but in word only. The truth behind each answer is something none of us can deny – our role in training directly affects the role training plays in our lives.

In our Shingitai-Ichi Dojo, we teach teachers – those whose role will be to pass training on. We are not hobbyists, we are like-minded folks who gather together weekly to infuse the ideals of this ancient warrior way into our ethics, our thoughts, our movements. Why? Because we enjoy swinging swords and dressing in black? Because for some reason, we are hard pressed to articulate, we understand the importance of warriorship and its priority in the human experience, to guide, navigate, and coordinate us in a society that is sometimes as brutal and cruel as any found in nature.

We do not expect others to understand our commitment when we travel out on cold nights to make class, our respect toward values and ideals at a time when ambivalence is a sign of thoughtfulness, and our courage when we step forward on the train car, as others are scrambling to retreat. We realize there’s a role we have chosen for ourselves, or in some cases the role chosen for us. Training can define our role, and that’s enough for it to make sense. Grandma had it right - she simply gave me what I asked, not what I wanted. Training is no different: what we get is often not what we expect.

Budo Taijutsu/Ninpo/Ninjutsu is often called the “art of living.” But who’s doing the living? Normal people survive, they can bury themselves inside a crush of others on a train car to shield their body from a killer. But extraordinary people allow normal people, not just to survive, but to live - the fireman who runs into the burning building, the police officer who confronts the suspect, the Marine who patrols and holds the village, so they won’t come back. And then there is the rest of us, who train for the good of ourselves, who train out of duty to our loved ones, who train for clarity in that moment.

Are we learning to survive? Yes. Are we learning to live? Yes. But we are also learning something more, something that can perhaps only be realized through our study of Budo. I don't yet know what that is, but if we're ever to discover it, we need to train and 'keep going.'

This is what we get - it’s what we ordered. So, own it. At your next training … sidle up like you own the place, lay an elbow flat on the counter, lean in so she can get a good look at you, and speak up, “One twist to go, Grandma!”

Have an inspired 2010!